Mobility Justice Advocates Gather in Leimert Park for Untokening California

The event marks the second convening aimed at "untokening" transportation planning

Untokening Co-founder Naomi Doerner listens to a participant during the Policy/Advocacy/Power workshop at the Untokening California convening November 4. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Untokening Co-founder Naomi Doerner listens to a participant during the Policy/Advocacy/Power workshop at the Untokening California convening November 4. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

“I’m at the point where I want to burn it [all down],” said a mobility advocate as Untokening California came to a close this past November 4.

She had had enough of hearing her community spoken about in offensive ways by well- (and not-so-well-) meaning planners and advocates, enough of giving 110 percent of herself only to realize a fraction of what she put forward was being seen as having value, enough of how disinterested those with power over what happened in marginalized communities remained in the larger picture, and enough of being tokenized.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” she told participants.

The group had gathered in the historic Vision Theater in Leimert Park (Los Angeles) to debrief about the events of the day, which included a morning meditation, a panel of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) grassroots advocates, break-out sessions on tokenism, storytelling, and power, and a tour of the Leimert Park Village with artist Ben Caldwell. But talk quickly turned to how unique it was to be speaking about mobility and cities in a majority-BIPOC space and what it meant to be able to speak freely, be understood, and openly consider radical change.

Many of those that took to the mic had attended the Policy/Advocacy/Power session led by Olatunji Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago and the newly-launched Equiticity and Untokening Co-founder Naomi Doerner. In introducing the activity for that session, Reed had talked about his successful battle to see the Active Transportation Alliance cancel the Vision Zero conference planned for Chicago and the case he made for programs targeting lower-income communities of color to strategize and engage with those communities, not for or about them. Doerner talked about her own recent move into a city agency in Seattle and efforts to push the needle on equity and justice in transportation from within. Using their own efforts to leverage power as points of reference, they then asked the 50-plus participants crammed into the KAOS Network to break into groups and talk about whether their preferred strategy would be to “build” (collaborate and work with agencies and advocates to shape a policy or investment) or “burn” (shut down a process and demand community needs be elevated and engaged to go forward) in the face of public investment, whether they would work from the inside or outside to effect change, and how best to ensure the needs of marginalized communities were always at the forefront of decision-making.

The exercise had sparked a lively discussion about how strategies would differ depending on how far along the planning process was as well as an examination of how advocates saw themselves positioned and where their sources of power lay. Because advocates worked everywhere from official organizations to the grassroots, conversations touched on everything from coalition building, leveraging power from the inside, to a combination of build/burn/inside/outside engagements.

Still, asking advocates to examine their own sources of power seemed to have sparked a lot of reflection. Two hours later, during the debriefing, some of the workshop participants were still using the “burn” or “build” language to describe how they’d been pushed to their limits, personally or professionally. And some took to the mic to suggest maybe it really was time to “burn” it all down.

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Olatunji Oboi Reed of Slow Roll Chicago and Equiticity speaks about his work to make Vision Zero accountable to lower-income residents of color. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The larger question of how to get transportation and planning apparatuses to be responsive to realities other than those of well-to-do able-bodied cis het white males is one of several that have driven the Untokening from the beginning. A multiracial movement for mobility justice, the Untokening materialized last year out of the frustrations of Doerner and fellow advocates Adonia Lugo, Carolyn Sczczepanski, and zahra alabanza over how often they, other advocates of color, and even the topics of equity and justice themselves were marginalized within traditional planning spaces.

In convening others with similar experiences of marginalization last November in Atlanta, the organizers opened up a space where their collective experiences could be centered and uplifted, their expertise could be more easily pooled, and intersectional frameworks that better served their communities’ needs and aspirations could begin to be articulated.

Held just days after last year’s election, some of the 130 mobility advocates in attendance kicked off that morning’s events by expressing both how raw the national affirmation of white supremacy, xenophobia, misogyny, and general bigotry had left them feeling and how much it confirmed what they already knew about how deeply those ills were embedded in our nation’s core.

Most had traveled to Atlanta precisely because of the extent to which the institutionalization of those ills in otherwise “progressive” planning narratives, frameworks, policies, and practices impacted their ability to advocate for their communities in their work as well as their own well-being.

The election of a short-fingered vulgarian who announced his campaign by belly-flopping into a xenophobic swamp only gave the work that much more urgency. Not just because of the harm that could come from having an unhinged bigot at the helm of the nation. But also because of the likelihood that efforts by progressives to push back against more obvious forms of racism and the like would breed that much more resistance to the acknowledgement of entrenched structural rot (see: questions that arose around the inclusivity of the Women’s March, for example).

"I'm gonna get the hope back, but I need a moment," said Keith Holt in the wake of the election at the 2016 Untokening. Photo: Argenis Apolinario
A somber Keith Holt reflected on the persistence of aggressive racism in the days following the 2016 election.  Photo: Argenis Apolinario

This year’s convening – organized by alabanza and Lugo with help from local coordinator Rachel Horn, Leimert Park liaison Adé Neff, and communications coordinator Sczczepanski – recognized the cumulative toll those collective fights had taken on advocates by focusing on building and deepening cross-community connections.

From morning meditations that centered healing, to a panel of grassroots experts in everything from environmental justice to indigenous rights, to an exploration of the efforts of Boyle Heights (via an open mic at the Ovas’ La Conxa) and Leimert Park (via a walking tour) to pushback against cultural erasure and physical displacement, to interactive workshops leveraging their own expertise, participants had multiple opportunities to draw strength and inspiration from both place and each other.

Participants also had a chance to review some of the principles of mobility justice that the Untokening’s core leadership team had distilled from the perspectives gathered at the previous year’s events.

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Artist, filmmaker, and innovator Ben Caldwell (in hat, at center right) speaks about the history of Leimert Park and the importance of black ownership in being able to harness the change coming to the area. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The affirmative nature of the event meant that even declarations that the best way forward was to “burn” the existing system were accompanied by acknowledgements of the potential for regeneration seated in the room.

The refusal to accept the norm of “conversations about us [being] conversations without us,” as speaker and environmental justice warrior mark! Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice had put it that morning, meant that participants were looking to each other for help in formulating new visions of what their communities and cities could be.

The way forward would not be easy. The moving testimony of speaker Kishi Hundley, community activist with T.R.U.S.T. South L.A., health promotora, and lifelong South Central resident, was a reminder that so many of marginalized communities’ most powerful voices face tremendous hurdles just getting their basic needs met, much less getting compensated for their unique expertise.

But there was strength in numbers.

Those present had the talent, the heart – everything needed to rebuild, said Social Justice Planner Monique López as the debrief drew to a close. “Let’s come together to build anew.”

 

Visit the Untokening website for more information about the convening, the organizers, and future events.

  • Scott Voolker

    There are many websites, such as the Huffington Post or the Guardian, that serve up a daily dose of vicious anti-white racism and man-hating rhetoric. Even leaving moral considerations aside, what is the comparative advantage of Streetsblog getting in on the bandwagon? I used to love the Streetsblog family of websites for addressing vitally important issues that are rarely mentioned in other media outlets. Feminist outposts like the dailykos or NPR, who are supposedly so concerned about the welfare of women, completely ignore the 11,000 women who are slaughtered annually on our streets by the reckless operation of giant metal boxes on wheels. Our insane transportation policies, by forcing people to drive instead of walking or biking, contribute greatly to the obesity epidemic. This not only causes well-documented devastating health effects for women, but it also causes untold sadness for young women and girls who are greatly hindered in their ability to attract a boyfriend or a husband, someone that they could create a lifelong bond with. But if a question of public policy is not conducive to making white men out to be evil-doers behind all redemption, then the New York Times or the Washington Post cannot be bothered to report on issues that greatly impact the lives of our women. That is why I was so enthusiastic about Streetsblog: it focused on urbanist issues that define all Americans’ lives to a large degree, but most people never even think about. But more and more Streetsblog is starting to decline into regurgitating the same white-man hating drivel that is ubiquitous on leftist media outlets. Leave the non–sensical cis-gendering, the incomprehensible heteronormalization, the non-existent white privilege, and all the rest of it to others. Wouldn’t Streetsblog be much better off if it focused on what it does best and let other do the hating?

  • sahra

    This idea that black and brown and other marginalized folks expressing their frustration at the extent to which they continue to not be be heard or simply speaking about the issues that affect their own communities constitutes “vicious anti-white racism and man-hating rhetoric” says so much more about you than it does about what is written here.

    Best,

    sahra

  • sahra

    Oh, honey, no.

    Just… no.

  • Warren Meech Wells

    I had a dollar for every white guy who posted on the internet, “Why can’t we just keep race/gender/equity/politics out of (insert favorite issue)?”, I’d have enough to money to close the wealth gap that Mr. Vookler definitely hasn’t read enough about.

    Here you are, Mr. V, if you’re interested: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/18/upshot/black-white-wealth-gap-perceptions.html

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Scott, without addressing all of the inaccurate or just plain wacky statements in your comments, here’s a quick thought. You are correct, growing up affluent is a big advantage. But being white, male, straight, and/or able-bodied, etc., also represent significant tailwinds that make it easier to succeed in our society.

    Different people have different combinations of these advantages, or none of them. For example, the poor white kid from Sulphur Springs may have trouble paying for college. But he probably won’t have to worry about being shot during a traffic stop due to the color of his skin.

    Pointing out that these different types of advantages contribute to certain people having more power in urban planning discussions than others doesn’t equal hating on affluent, white, male, straight, and/or able-bodied people. It’s just a matter of acknowledging the reality that inequalities exist, and working to level the playing field.

  • Dulcie Canton
  • Dulcie Canton

    NO, NO and NO!

  • D Man

    Is this Vanity Fair? Nope, it’s Streetsblog. Let’s stick to advocating for road diets Sahra.

  • LePinkElephant

    White supremacy is alive and well in these comments. Thanks for pushing back, Streetsblog.

  • I think there may have been a story or two you forgot to spam.

  • sahra

    This comments thread had been relatively quiet and I was afraid that our resident trolls had found something productive to do with their lives. But then my power went out, and when I got back online after a few hours, I found that all my friends (plus some new ones, huzzah!) had shown up to “I wuz here” as god intended.

    It’s a streetsblog miracle.

  • Joe R.

    While you’re correct about the numbers of poor whites versus non-whites, the answer at this point can’t be just “work your way out of your problems”. The hard fact is the system is gamed against anyone who isn’t already wealthy. American workers have increased their productivity several times over since the 1950s, and yet it’s the CEOs and shareholders who have seen most of those gains, not the worker. Speculators and real estate developers have manipulated housing prices at the same time zoning has kept the housing stock artificially low. The end result is many people cannot afford a place to live, even if they have a job. Instead, they stay with parents or relatives. College costs have increased way faster than inflation, making going heavily into debt the only way to get an education which may or may not help you get ahead. And then when those loans need to be repaid, those who default because they can’t get jobs often end up owing multiples of what they borrowed a few years later thanks to shady, illegal practices like adding exorbitant collection fees, often as part of so-called rehabilitation loans. End result is essentially indentured servitude where you’re paying off your student loan even when you’re old enough to collect Social Security. Don’t even get me started on health care. Every other first world country has single payer. We’re still clinging to the for-profit model.

    I could go on, but it’s hard enough for poor whites to make any headway against a system gamed for the rich, even with any advantages they have. You can’t work your way out of your problems any more. We need institutional change starting at the top. The same changes which would help poor whites would help the poor of other races.

  • JonDubno

    Poor folks become rich and rich folks fail and become poor. Whatever the secret sauce is, it ain’t that.

  • Joe R.

    A lot fewer poor folks are becoming rich these days thanks to the factors I mentioned. As an example, I’m a white male with an Ivy League degree in engineering. Despite that, most of my life has been a struggle. I’ve had to spend most of my life underemployed thanks to lack of jobs in my field. Same thing with my brother and sister who basically live paycheck to paycheck. I would actually have been homeless if not for the fact I decided to stay with my parents. I just never made enough to live on my own thanks to ridiculous housing prices and lack of jobs paying a living wage (in NYC that’s probably $100K or more annually).

    The problem is the poor and middle class bought the “trickle-down economics” scam hook, line, and sinker. Our tax system should be set up so the only way the rich don’t lose their money is to invest it in a productive enterprise. Low tax rates just mean the money is socked away in overseas accounts. Upward mobility has always been higher when the rich were taxed more. They faced a choice of taking the profits out of their companies, and paying perhaps 70% to the government, versus spending those funds on capital equipment, salaries, or R&D, and keeping most of them. The high tax rates gave them an incentive to do exactly that. The end result created lots of good-paying jobs which helped upward mobility.

    It’s pretty telling that many in my parents generation without college degrees were able to buy houses, raise families, often on just one salary. Now you have college graduates who can’t even entertain living on their own, never mind starting families, even with both people working.

  • I remember when I used to think that our problems in society weren’t race based, but entirely class based. It was the 1990’s. I grew up. I honestly don’t understand how anyone in today’s day and age can’t see this.

  • Rafe Husain

    ebikes trump expensive transit. free no lic no reg no tax no gas. Why do road bikers always want complex solution and ignore solution at hand simply because they consider it “cheating”

  • JonDubno

    Yes, our parents had it easier.

    But we will eventually inherit those inflated houses and 401K plans

  • Joe R.

    Actually, inflated home prices aren’t helping me either since it means I have to come up with more to buy out my two siblings in order to stay in the house. If I sell it, not much I can for 1/3 of what it’s worth since I’d be buying in an inflated market. Had home prices increased with inflation buying my siblings out wouldn’t have been an issue. So basically I’m looking at being homeless once my mom passes unless my siblings are willing to take a lot less than 1/3 each (or unless home prices crash before then, which I’m actually rooting to happen).

  • JonDubno

    Wait, you live with your mother?

  • Joe R.

    Yes. I’m actually caring for her at this point. She has dementia and severe joint issues.

    I never had any desire to live on my own. Living alone is pretty lousy actually. Nothing wrong with living with your parents. Our previous neighbors had their adult children in their 40s still living with them. With these crazy housing prices, you’re essentially spending most of your take-home pay on housing if you try to go it alone. That means you don’t save a dime. You live from paycheck to paycheck. That puts you one paycheck from being homeless. That’s not a great way to live.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Moderator Sahra Sulaiman with panelists Tamika Butler and Zahra Alabanza. Photo: Jean Khut
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Black Leaders Discuss Their Efforts to Promote Equity in Mobility Advocacy

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In early November, mobility advocates from across the United States gathered in Atlanta for The Untokening, a "convening" to address equity issues in transportation and public spaces. Streetsblog Chicago sent writer Jean Khut to Atlanta last month to report on The Untokening and share lessons from the event that could be applied to transportation justice efforts in our city.